Interview with Michael McKinley, Author of Hockey: A People's History

When I was approached to conduct an interview with Michael McKinley about his 2006 book, Hockey: A People’s History, I was excited for the opportunity, but slightly hesitant about reading the book. Most of us, as hockey fans, think we know anything and everything there is to know about the sport we like to call our own here in Canada, and I, of course, was no different. But the truth is that there is much we don’t know about how hockey became a national sport, our pride and a staple in our lives in under a century and a half, and astonishing feat.

The first question I asked Mr. McKinley was maybe an obvious one. What would inspire a native Canadian to put together such a detailed and thorough history of our sport together? It read as follows:

GP: I know that the CBC approached you to work on Hockey: A People's History after you wrote Putting a Roof on Winter earlier in the decade, but what inspired you in putting together such an epic telling of the 135 or so years of hockey in this country?

The answer is probably the most resounding reason that everyone reading this should go and pick up a copy of this book today, if they haven’t done so already:

MM:I was inspired by the place the game holds in the Canadian imagination. It's been 135 years since the first indoor hockey game, and in a relatively short historical time period (considering recorded human history) it fascinates me how one sport could so quickly dominate a country. I wanted to explore why that was the case.

There really isn’t any better way to put it. Hockey has come to be a major part of almost every Canadian’s life. Whether it’s someone whose family has resided in Canada since long before the sport’s creation, or even someone who is just arriving to the country, they’re likely to have at least watched one hockey game in their lives. When there is a game on, it’s on every screen at every sports bar, in many homes across the country, and in many Canadians’ minds, even long after the final buzzer. Americans have football, basketball and baseball. Europeans have soccer. But no sport resonates more with a single country’s population and history than hockey does in Canada.

Despite this clear connection with most, if not all of us, not many people really think of how this sport came to be such a major part of our daily lives. When The Checking Line opens its doors nearly a year ago, we added the following tagline at the top of the page, mostly in jest:

Awesome hockey discussion since 1875. True Story

We didn’t really give it much thought, but that’s really how long hockey has been part of our history. Through world wars, cold wars, revolutions, riots, economic highs and economic lows, controversies and moments of glory, hockey has somehow found a way to leave a mark on Canada.

Hockey: A People’s History shares with us many of these stories, many of these moments in our history, and manages to teach even the most informed hockey fans many interesting and astounding facts about both our sport and our history over the last 135 years.

Luckily for us, Mr. McKinley was kind enough to answer a few questions in regards to his book and the process of writing it, to the current state of hockey and the NHL, and to his upcoming projects as an author.




GP: How did writing Hockey: A People’s History differ from writing Putting a Roof on Winter?

MM:Since Hockey: A People’s History was a companion book to the CBC TV series of the same name, I had the luxury of working with the TV researchers while I wrote. They'd send me their research, and I'd send them mine, and so we cross-pollinated. It made, I hope, both works better.

GP: I read that while writing Hockey: A People’s History, you had the help of staff that worked on the TV version of your novel in your research. Was there any period or event in the book that you found especially difficult in researching, or uncovering?

MM:I wish James Creighton, who staged the world's first indoor hockey game, who developed rules for the sport, and who had a hand in the creation of the Stanley Cup, had left us a written record of how he did it all, and what was on his mind as he went. But so far as we know, he did not. Nevertheless, we know enough about him and his accomplishments to put him in the Hockey Hall of Fame, and the fact that we have not yet done so is a profound embarrassment to me as a Canadian. I live in the USA now, and if Creighton had been born here, he'd long ago have had his own postage stamp, and would probably be on a piece of currency too.

GP: Is there any fact or story that really stood out in your research and surprised you?

MM:I think the story of Mike Buckna was one of the most astounding. His parents are Czechoslovakian immigrants to BC, Buckna grows up playing hockey in Trail, BC, then goes back to the old country to see where his parents came from. He winds up trying out for the Czech national hockey team, who think he's been sent by a benevolent deity, and leads them-- after WWII-- to a world championship. The USSR decides it wants to get good at hockey, and so who does it learn from? Its hockey champion satellite state, Czechoslovakia. So when the USSR came to play the Summit Series in 1972 against the best of the NHL, and people marveled at the Soviets' skill and creativity, they were marveling at the hockey Mike Buckna had exported from Trail, BC, four decades earlier.

GP: Who was your favorite character (or characters) to write about in the book?

MM:James Creighton, Cyclone Taylor, the Patrick Brothers, and Conn Smythe. All self-invented epic characters-- and a far cry from the bland hyper-packaged-and-marketed players of today.



GP: In the book you obviously talk about a lot of the builders of our sport, both on and off the ice, many of whom have their own trophies named after them for either their accomplishments or their association to the trophy before it was given to hockey. If you could choose one other historical figure of the sport and name a trophy after them, who would it be, and what would the trophy be given for?

MM:James Creighton. The trophy would be to the person who has made the most original contribution to the game for that season.

GP: In hockey's 135 plus year history in Canada, many historical events, from wars, to economic booms and depressions, have left a profound mark and effect on the sport. Is there any particular historical occurrence that you could say had the biggest effect on the sport, over all the rest?

MM:I would suggest the advent of televised sport in the 1960s coincidental to the rise of the civil rights movement had the most profound effect on the sport. Not only did TV lead to significant expansion of the NHL and much more revenue, the civil rights struggle and that also helped focus the players to form a players association. They saw what their colleagues were doing in MLB, and now had the determination to catch the spirit of the times and free themselves from what had amounted to indentured servitude. Suddenly, power was shifting from the owners to the players, and all of it enjoyed by a much larger audience thanks to TV.

GP: I think that if you asked most hockey fans which trade shocked them the most in their years as hockey fans, it would probably be the Wayne Gretzky trade from the Oilers to the Kings in 1988. In your research, is there any other trade that you think left as profound a mark on the sport and the country in the sport's history?

MM: No, nothing of that magnitude. He was the symbol of hockey excellence and Canada's poster boy to boot, and if he could be sold, anyone could be.

GP: As a Habs fan and writer, much of the criticism I hear about the Canadiens is that the reason they won so many Stanley Cups is because of the "cultural Clause" that allowed them to pick francophone players ahead of anyone else in the amateur drafts of the 60s. In the book you state that the Canadiens only used this clause twice. Still, with easy access to Francophone players even before the amateur draft was put into place in 1963, what effect do you think the Francophone "flavor" had on the Canadiens and their winning ways over the last 100 years? Moreover, do you think the recent decline of Francophone talent entering the NHL had had a negative impact on the Canadiens?

MM:To be sure, the Canadiens' status as a cultural icon to Franconphones made the talented French Canadian player want to don the bleu, blanc et rouge (and in a few cases, not don as it the pressure was too great), so the mere existence of the Canadiens in Quebec made them a natural magnet for talent. Not to want to play for them if you were a Francophone could be seen as a kind of rejection of birthright, especially before the Quiet Revolution. Their Francophone identity that transcended hockey gave them a kind of invulnerable mystique, but let it not be forgotten that the better NHL team in Montreal during the Depression was the Maroons (created for the city's Anglo community), and they were sacrificed for economic reasons, leaving the Canadiens to stand alone (or eventually as one of the "Original Six" where three teams would dominate for decades). I think that the internationalization of the NHL has been a good thing for the game, and the fact the Canadiens haven't "ghettoized" themselves has been good, too.



From here, we went on to ask Mr. McKinley a few question in regards to the current state of hockey and the NHL, from the Winter Olympics, to the expansion of the sport and the salary cap, among other topics:

GP: Winning the gold medal in hockey at these past Olympics in Vancouver was an important and prideful moment for most, if not all Canadians. How do you think Sidney Crosby and co's victory at the 2010 Olympics over the Americans stacks up to the 1972 summit series, a very important part of Canada's history and, of course, your book?

MM:It was a great victory, but it wouldn't have been possible without the Summit Series. The 1972 Series was revolutionary, and the 2010 Canadian gold medal benefited from the way the Summit Series opened up the world's borders to hockey.

GP: In the book, there is a fair amount of talk of amateur status, and the players that were sent, or were allowed to be sent to world championships and the Olympics over the years. With Canada winning the gold medal at these year's games, and, of course, the USA finishing in 2nd place, do you think the NHL will allow NHLers to return to the Olympics in Sochi in 2014?

MM:Yes, I think the NHL will be back at Sochi. Too many players want to play for their countries, and it would be a legal and PR disaster if the NHL didn't go, but players did. The only way they wouldn't go is if the NHPLA voted to give Sochi a miss.

GP: One of the facts in your book that astounded me the most was the fact that for many years, the NHL and other hockey leagues in the country had a salary cap, like the one teams have to deal with today. What are your thoughts on the NHL's current salary cap, compared to the one that teams lived with for years, decades even, in the 20th century?

MM:I think the salary cap is the only way to keep small market teams competitive. Like it or not, we have to have some kind of governor on the market or else you'd get a few teams-- a la the NY Yankees --just going on a spending spree to own the Cup.

GP: A few weeks ago, the NHL rejected a 17-year contract between the New Jersey Devils and Ilya Kovalchuk. Subsequently, it was revealed that the NHL was also looking into some "front-loaded" contracts that were already approved by the NHL. Based on what you researched and uncovered for Hockey: A People’s History, do you see any precedent for the NHL to reject such contracts?

MM:Well, the NHL's precedent is the NHL. They can always reject any contract, and ever since they were formed, in 1917, they have had a formidable power over the economics of the game. The simple fact that teams have to register contracts with the league means that the league can pretty much do what it likes-- within the boundaries of the NHPLA, and labor law, of course.

GP: One fear that is creeping up on many hockey fans in this country is that of another lockout next season, when the current Collective Bargaining Agreement expired in 2011. What effect do you think another lockout would on the NHL and the sport in general, so soon after the last one?

MM:A lockout would be devastating to the sport here in the USA, where Versus, the NHL's regular season broadcaster, saw its ratings go way up this year, and more people watched the Stanley Cup playoffs than ever before. In a marketplace the NHL is keen to conquer, having a lockout would set the game back years here.

GP: Where do you see the sport and the NHL in 10 or 20 years?

MM:With two, if not three, new teams in Canada, and perhaps one in Europe.

(Interestingly enough, this interview was conducted only a few days prior to yesterday’s news that IIHF President Réné Fasel was against the NHL expanding to Europe)

GP: The Montreal Canadiens are currently on a near 20-year Stanley Cup drought. The Toronto Maple Leafs are nearing 45 years without a cup. Which team do you think will break the drought first? Will one of these teams be the first to bring the cup back to Canada, or will it be one of the other four Canadian teams?

MM:I think the Vancouver Canucks-- my team, and source of most of my neuroses --could do it if they could get rid of that crazy long-term contract they awarded Roberto Luongo, trade him, and develop a couple of good young goalies already in their system. They won't win the Cup with Luongo, who is good, but not consistently great, and the players know it. They might win it with fresh blood in net, someone who has not been tagged and burdened with the Goalie Messiah label (and nope, Luongo didn't win them the gold medal at the Olympics-- in fact, it was his error that led to the tying goal with 25 seconds left. The guy should buy Sidney Crsoby dinner every February 28 for the rest of his life).

GP: Finally, a tough question that may get you into trouble with some of our readers. After over 75 years of debate, which is "Canada's team": The Montreal Canadiens, or the Toronto Maple Leafs? Is there room in the hearts of Canadians for both to hold that title?

MM:I grew up in Vancouver, and the Canadiens were always my other team, so yes, absolutely there's room for both. Indeed, Canadians are remarkably flexible in awarding that "Canada's Team" distinction, and I suspect any Canadian team that made it to the Stanley Cup Final would be "it".



We also asked Mr. McKinley a few questions about what he would like to do in the future, and some of his upcoming projects:

GP: If you could write one more chapter to Hockey: A People's History, on any topic or occurrence that has happened since the last addition to the book, what would it be?

MM:I'd write about the development of the game in China.

GP: I know you've written a book about Mario Lemieux, but if you could choose any character from Hockey: A People's History who you could write another book about, who would it be?

MM:I'd love to write about Ted Lindsay, who was so instrumental in forming the NHPLA (and paid a heavy price for it-- traded from Detroit to the cellar-dwelling Black Hawks). I think his is a fascinating story, and it should be told in greater depth.

GP: You recently forayed into the world of novel writing with The Penalty Killing. How did that experience differ from writing books such as Hockey: A People's History, or your work as a journalist?

MM:I loved writing The Penalty Killing because I could officially make things up! I'm just finishing the second novel in what I hope will be a long run for Martin Carter, my ex-hockey playing sleuth. I'd be happy to talk about the novel in a future interview, anytime you like.

GP: What's next for Michael McKinley?

MM:More novels-- I'm also working on a thriller set in the world of high finance.

Finally, we asked Mr. McKinley if he had a message to anyone who may be considering picking up a copy of the book:

GP: Like many Canadians, I always kind of thought of myself as somewhat of an "expert" on the sport of hockey. After reading Hockey: A People's History, I was humbled to find out how much I didn't know about the sport, and very glad that I had an opportunity to read it and further my knowledge about hockey. Is there anything you might like to say to Canadians who may feel the same way, who may be hesitant in picking up a copy of the book?

MM:Please consider the book the story of us, and of our American cousins. I think hockey-- or sport --matters as much culturally as any of the arts as to how we understand who we are, and so please approach the book in the spirit of finding out more about the family, as it were. You can dip into it at leisure, and I hope, be entertained.

Reading Hockey: A People’s History was truly an eye-opening experience for me. There is truly a great amount of stories on Canada’s 135 year relationship with the sport of hockey that really don’t get enough attention. Michael McKinley sheds light on many of these stories of hockey’s builders, movers and shakers over the last century and a half, and puts a nice twist on how these stories are told. Once you pick up this book and begin reading of the first of the sport’s origins, of the first outdoor game staged by James Creighton in Montreal in 1875, you will not be able to put it down. Not until finding out how this continuing 135 year saga plays out to our present day.


Michael McKinley, a native of Vancouver, British Columbia, is an author of several hockey books, a novelist, journalist, documentary filmmaker, screenwriter, and Oxford professor. Hockey: A People’s History, which was written to accompany a CBC special of the same name, can be found here, on Amazon. His recent foray into the world of novel writing, entitled The Penalty Killing: A Martin Carter Mystery can be found at this link. If you are a hockey fan and, more importantly, a Canadian, both are titles that should be in your book collection.

My thanks to Mr. McKinley and Stephen Crane of CraneCreek Communications for the opportunity and interview.